by Andrew Quinn and Neil Chatterjee
Yangon: Myanmar’s generals were looking for a chance to improve ties with the United States. A disturbed American gave them one in May 2009, when he swam across Yangon’s Inya Lake on “a mission from God” to rescue Aung San Suu Kyi.
John Yettaw, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran from Missouri, had hoped to smuggle the democracy champion out of the country in a burkha. He was convicted along with Suu Kyi for violating the terms of her house arrest. Instead of sending him to Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, however, the junta let Yettaw fly out of the country with a US senator.
It was a major step in Myanmar’s warming towards the West — but not the first one.
Interviews with dozens of officials in Yangon, Washington and Southeast Asia, and an examination of diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, show that the United States and Myanmar had started waltzing warily toward each other in the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Yettaw’s bizarre night-time swim gave impetus to the dance. But it began with Myanmar’s fears of rising Chinese influence in their country and was given crucial help by Indonesia’s top diplomat. Washington’s subsequent willingness to engage the junta, and the generals’ surprise steps toward reform, culminated in Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar earlier this month, the first by a US Secretary of State in five decades.
Whether Myanmar remains on the reform path is an open question. The military junta yielded to a nominally civilian government last year. But US officials expressed worry in interviews that Myanmar’s leadership may not be moving in lockstep. It remains impossible to determine exactly what is going on inside the secretive government.
Among the questions is how far Yangon is willing to embrace Suu Kyi and her fellow democrats. Washington and its allies must encourage a reformist faction led by President Thein Sein against what they fear could be an eventual effort by hardliners to throttle back the process.
US officials hope the prospect of improved economic ties with the West will help consolidate the reformers’ gains. But China remains a powerful and cash-rich suitor, and Beijing has sought to parry Clinton’s overtures by sending its own top diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, to Myanmar to offer more cooperation. Chinese officials have also reached out to Suu Kyi herself — their highest contact with the Myanmar opposition in two decades.
The new administration of President Barack Obama signalled at the start of 2009 a pivot towards Asia. An emerging China had made strong economic and diplomatic inroads the previous decade while America was absorbed with militant Islam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Western trade and investment sanctions, meanwhile, had taken a toll on Myanmar, and it had increasingly been pulled into the economic orbit of China, its giant neighbour to the north.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, saw an opportunity to change Myanmar’s tilt toward China.
The goal, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in an interview, was to encourage political and economic reforms that might convince Washington to ease sanctions. ASEAN dangled before the generals a prestigious prize, he says: the 2014 chairmanship of the regional bloc.
Washington’s decision to engage Myanmar came after realising sanctions weren’t working and were irritating US relations with ASEAN. The Yangon gambit was seen by both Washington and ASEAN as key to balancing China’s rapid emergence in Asia.
“More than anything, it was a recognition that what we were trying, which was simply sanctions and the like, was unsuccessful,” a senior Obama administration official said. “It was simply not working. I think also there was a recognition that we were out of step with everyone else.”
Myanmar’s thick wall of distrust toward the West began softening after a natural disaster in 2008.
Hardliners in the junta at the time feared the US military could one day find a pretext to intervene in Myanmar, diplomats in Myanmar said. The country’s warrior class will never forget how easily the British sailed up the Irrawaddy River in 1885 and with a thousand soldiers took the royal town of Mandalay, bundling King Thibaw and his family into exile in Bombay.
That suspicion helps explain why the junta hesitated to let US military planes fly in desperately needed relief aid after a cyclone swept over the Irrawaddy Delta and into Yangon, killing nearly 140,000 people in May 2008. It also moved the capital to the remote town of Naypyitaw from Yangon, a mere 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Andaman Sea.
US military planes were eventually allowed to fly in more than $40 million of supplies. The disaster forced senior Myanmar officials to interact with foreign relief workers.
“I think that began to change the mindset, essentially,” said Thant Myint-U, a former UN official, author, and influential commentator on Myanmar affairs. “The main insight in Naypyitaw was that they could open up, allow in aid and interact with foreigners, and the sky wouldn’t fall in.”
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